House & Home

How to blend skeletons with velvet? Take a lesson from Oracle shop owners

Jane Almirall admits that the sculpture in the corner of the living room in her Mission home hasn’t earned her children many playdates. It was created by artist Don Kauss.
Jane Almirall admits that the sculpture in the corner of the living room in her Mission home hasn’t earned her children many playdates. It was created by artist Don Kauss. jledford@kcstar.com

Jane Almirall knows the sculpture in the corner of her living room can be unnerving.

It has a mannequin body, fiberglass deer head, steer horn and vulture wings. A pair of drawers projecting from its chest are filled with tortoise feet, crab claws, a dried locust, twigs and other bits of flora and fauna. Sharp, metal tools are attached to one side of its torso like an arm.

“That didn’t earn my kids very many play dates because it has pointy stuff on it. So you can’t touch it, and it’s a little scary,” says Almirall, a mother of two, in Mission. The sculpture was created by Don Kauss, whom she met at Arizona State University, where they both received masters of fine arts degrees.

“I see it as stating that nature has its own weaponry,” she adds.

The sculpture is perched on a small white side table, between an olive green velvet sofa from Urban Outfitters and a fireplace that has a white mantel filled with a white framed drawing by Almirall, white skulls, a coral fan and various feathers. Rocks and bison fossils, mostly found near the Kansas River, are scattered among them. A taxidermied squirrel sits beneath a glass bell dome on the coffee table.

Almirall’s two children, Josephine, 8, and Owen, 6, are accustomed to living with this collection of curiosities. But Almirall has seen the odd looks on the faces of their friends and friends’ parents.

She, Carrie Parker and Alessandra Duzba co-own Oracle, Fine Curiosities at 130 W. 18th St. in the Crossroads. The boutique that specializes in unusual taxidermy, skulls, skeletons, pelts, framed insects and other natural finds.

Dzuba, aka the Bone Wizard is painstakingly reconstructing a 12-foot-long python skeleton on a piece of decayed wood. She has assembled more than 300 pieces so far and has several hundred more to match and attach. Then Oracle will sell it.

The shop and its purveyors are magnetic with their willowy forms and earthy yet ethereal wares. Tell them they remind you of the “Witches of Eastwick,” and they won’t mind. But even the most imaginative and open-minded people might wonder how a Yukon black wolf skull or stuffed two-headed duckling would fit into their own homes once Halloween is past. Wouldn’t they seem odd or even macabre sitting on a coffee table next to a Pottery Barn vase?

Here’s how the women make it work.

Pairing death with color

Almirall’s sky-blue living room walls are the background to a gallery above the sofa that comprises vintage mirrors, a painting of a human skull, a framed bat and insects, and drawings of other curiosities.

The rest of the room contains a mix of natural wood tables and midcentury modern furnishings, lending it a fresh, eclectic feel.

The look carries over to Almirall’s bedroom, where she keeps a starling that she stuffed herself. It’s perched on a branch, among nature books, crystals and framed insects. It’s the only animal she has ever taxidermied.

Another vignette includes a cattle skull with peacock feathers protruding from its eye sockets. Shed antlers on a dressing table serve as ring holders, and a timber wolf pelt — head included — lies across the bottom of the bed.

There’s a consistency of design in all three women’s homes. The bones, skeletons and pelts are supplemented with and contrasted by colorful walls, gauzy and velvety fabrics, crystals, candles, raw wood and river rock. They’ve pulled together collections of relics and fine art into gallery walls.

The two-bedroom apartment that Dzuba shares with her boyfriend south of the Country Club Plaza incorporates such elements, though it didn’t when she moved in with him a year ago.

“I have kind of taken over, I guess,” Dzuba says.

There’s a badger skeleton on a piece of driftwood that took her a month to assemble, pheasant feathers, a deer hide and muntjac deer skull. A gallery wall has a framed tarantula, moths, butterflies, scarab beetles and a hummingbird print made by Inuit artists in Quebec.

“A lot of my pieces have weird genetic deformities, an extra tooth or a missing horn like that Jacob’s ram skull,” Dzuba says, pointing at a skull on the floor near her back door. Rams usually have four horns, but her skull has three, with a nub where the fourth should have grown.

Dzuba’s boyfriend, an animal lover, isn’t crazy about the collection of curiosities, but he did fall in love with a Don Kauss piece they bought at a show Dzuba curated. It hangs in a prominent place in the living room.

“And I don’t think anything I have brought in here has anything negative attached to it,” she says. “I try to bring in things that have died a natural, peaceful death.”

Ethically sourced animals

The women stress that Oracle’s products are ethically sourced. Many have fascinating stories behind them, like the fox in Carrie Parker’s home.

“He was a neighborhood fox. He had been accidentally hit by a car, and one of the neighbors found him,” she says. “He was in really good condition so they all chipped together and got him taxidermied and he would rotate among their households.”

Parker’s home also includes a peacock hanging on her living room wall and an ermine nesting beneath a glass dome.

“He’s adorable,” Parker says. “(Ermines’) coats change colors. They’re white in the winter to hide in the snow, then turn earth brown during warmer months.”

All kinds of people make up Oracle’s clientele, she says. “We get high school kids, Goth kids, artists, really rich people from Johnson County.”

Business also picks up when there are certain conventions in town, such as chiropractic, dental and Comic-Con.

“You’re bringing part of nature inside, so your environment is not so sterile,” she says. “It’s the same reason you have plants in your house or cut flowers and put them in a vase. It’s beautiful and you want to be intimate with it.”

Native Americans assign certain meanings to animals, and Parker believes that everyone has a spirit animal.

“I think they change throughout your life depending on the message you need to be given at any moment,” she says. “For years dragonflies followed me around, then it was grasshoppers a couple of years ago. I’d get in my closed car and a grasshopper would be on my dash. He was checking me out, and I would check him out and he’d ride around with me for a while. Now it’s foxes.

“There’s a lot to learn from them,” she adds. “But it depends on the person interacting with them, what it means to them and why it’s coming to them at that time.”

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